A Year of Near Misses, So Far

Article Contributed by
Walt Pickut
Martz/Kohl Board of Directors

“It feels like the world suddenly strayed into shooting gallery,” said a member of the Martz/Kohl Observatory last week. “Four near misses since January 1 and another one coming. That must be some kind of record.” It’s not a record anyone wants to break.

In 2017 Earth has already dodged four NEAs, Near-Earth Asteroids, and not by much. Each one shot overhead well within the Moon’s orbit. In astronomical terms, that’s almost a bull’s eye. Any one of them could have killed tens of thousands if their orbits had been mere fractions of a degree different and slammed into any city on Earth.

Fortunately, there are guardians like the Catalina Sky Survey, NASA’s Asteroid Watch program, and Pan-STARRS, the Panoramic Survey Telescope & Rapid Response System, funded in large part by the United States Air Force along with key universities around the world and international science corporations. Pan-STARRS is a system of telescopes, two now in operation with two more planned at a total cost of $100 million, which is inexpensive insurance since we have only one planet to live on. Though not part of that system the Martz/Kohl Observatory has frequently tracked a few of the well-known asteroids and we report observations of new and unusual astronomical events to various official agencies that continually watch the sky.

Count Them!
On Sunday, January 8, Catalina Sky Survey spotted asteroid 2017 AG13, a 10-storey tall space rock, only one day before it sped past Earth travelling at 16 miles per second. It was followed by #2, a slightly smaller asteroid, 2017 BX, only a few weeks later. The third bullet we barely missed was a smaller asteroid, 2017 BH30, whizzing by the Earth six times closer than the Moon. Asteroids 2 and 3 were also discovered no more than a few days before their closest pass by the Earth.

Then on January 30th PanSTARRS discovered a fourth asteroid that seemed to have Earth in its crosshairs. It was given the designation 2017 BS32. It already passed us only a few days ago on its closest approach, 3:25 on the Thursday afternoon, February 2. This one screamed by 60% closer than the Moon at an astonishing 26,000 miles per hour. At about 55 feet across, it was a chunk of space rock the size of a school bus, though much heavier, that could have blasted a crater big enough to wipe out all of Jamestown’s city center and much more along with it.

Now get ready for #5, comet 45P/HMP, coming this week. Fortunately, this one’s aim is not quite as good as the others, but it will buzz by on Saturday, February 11. Its name and its size are much bigger than its predecessors. It is named 45P/Honda–Mrkos–Pajdušáková after its discoverers who first detected it on December 3, 1948. It takes 5.25 years to circle the sun once and on this pass it will cruise within a little less than 8 million miles of Earth. But its enormous mass, nearly a half-mile in diameter, could obliterate a small country with massive global consequences.

Hop Aboard
The Martz/Kohl Observatory has begun a training program for its members to learn how to operate the observatory’s telescopes, cameras and computers for their own sky-watching and enjoyment. New members are invited. No technical, scientific or astronomy training is required, just a little curiosity and a lot of enthusiasm.

This year will also feature NASA and Space Telescope scientists along with astronomers from some of the nation’s top universities. Their talks, on the second Wednesday of every month starting in March (doors open at 8p.m.) are always geared for the general public with lively Q & A to follow.
Admission is free for members, general public suggested donation (Martz/ Kohl is non-profit, member/volunteer operated) $5 for adults and $2 for any age with student ID.

For a deeper look at the night sky, planets, stars and the entire universe, visit the Martz/Kohl Observatory online at martzobservatory.org, check the schedule of events and visit in person. Thank you to Hall and Laury Opticians for sponsoring these Martz/Kohl column.